It is time to shift gears from the playing field and head to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis to evaluate the draft prospects for 2010. I will be broadcasting my radio show from the combine Friday, Saturday and Sunday and posting my observations from the big event all week.
We all know about the apparent top prospects this year, but really nothing has been decided yet. When Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh lines up to run the 40-yard dash, all eyes will be watching. The same holds true for the other projected top five picks -- if they decide to work out. We already know that quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Jimmy Clausen will not throw at Lucas Oil Stadium, but there are many other athletes to evaluate. Remember, when certain prospects don't work out, it opens the door for others.
Regardless of position, speed is the first way to get noticed at the combine. Then come the other measurable tests, followed by the interviews and the position work.
Here are 10 players I have some real interest in watching perform. They are not household names yet, but they have a chance to be hot prospects and move into first-round contention or at least high in the second round.
Tony Pike, QB, Cincinnati
Pike will measure at 6-foot-5, making him the tallest QB prospect. That will interest many coaches who value the importance of height in the NFL. I have watched this guy on tape in a number of games, and he will impress with his mobility -- a solid short shuttle time would not surprise me, and a sub-5.0 40 is not out of the question. Without Bradford and Clausen throwing, Pike will take center stage, and his arm strength and accuracy should shine. The guy threw 48 touchdown passes and just 17 interceptions in the last two years. At least seven teams are looking for a quarterback in this draft, and Pike could establish himself as a Joe Flacco-type by the end of the combine.
Kyle Wilson, CB, Boise State
Wilson jumped out at me during the Senior Bowl practices. Watching him on tape has only made me more intrigued. If Wilson comes into Indianapolis and runs a 4.39 40 and hits his short shuttle close to 4.0, then he will move up the draft board. Right now he sits somewhere around the No. 4 or No. 5 corner, but that could change dramatically. He has great punt return skills that demonstrate game speed, which really is more important than straight-line speed. I expect Wilson to be a topic of conversation all combine long.
Brian Price, DT, UCLA
There are two big-time defensive tackles at the top of draft boards right now (Suh and Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy), and they deserve to be there. Price is closer to the fourth- or fifth-best DT in the draft. He could run close to 5.0 at 300-plus pounds this weekend; his 10-yard time as well as the short shuttle may be even more important. Why do I think he's capable of posting impressive numbers in those tests? Because when I watch him play on tape, he is explosive and relentless. In the last two years, on a bad defense, he has 38 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks. The 4-3 scheme is still the predominant defense in the NFL, and he is a fine "three-technique" candidate.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Fresno State
We all know C.J. Spiller from Clemson is the top prospect in the running back class, viewed as the next Chris Johnson. But there are never enough backs in a draft, and Mathews has a chance to make a statement at the combine. He missed seven games in his career but still managed to rush for 3,280 yards and 39 touchdowns. His physical exams will be critical, but watch him shine in his interviews and come away as a very coachable player. There's a chance he runs a sub-4.5 40 at close to 220 pounds.
Damian Williams, WR, USC
Williams reminds me of Donald Driver. He plays faster than his speed times, though he is capable of running a sub-4.5. He will do an exceptional job in his interviews, giving coaches a sense of his maturity. His 14.2-yard punt return average points toward a very respectable short shuttle, and he should do well in the receiver gauntlet drill. Williams comes into Indianapolis as the fourth or fifth receiver candidate but could leave as the No. 3 receiver if he completes all the work.
Matt Tennant, C, Boston College
Tennant made an impression on me at Senior Bowl practice, and I was even more impressed after interviewing him. He is really smart and competitive, which will shine through in his team interviews. He has been starting at BC since Matt Ryan was the quarterback and looks like he will be the 12th Boston College offensive lineman to play in the NFL next year. Tennant will measure at 6-foot-4 and just under 300 pounds. I have watched him pull from the center position, and he should run close to 5.0 in the 40 with an impressive short shuttle as well. He's not the first center on the board right now, but he could be by the end of his Indy visit.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, South Florida
Here's a guy who went to two different junior colleges and spent only one year at South Florida. Pierre-Paul will get some very tough interview questions, as coaches will want to know more about the one-year wonder. What they will see is a 6-foot-5, 265-pound raw athlete with long arms who can jump and really run. If you are in the market for potential, he could be the answer. His testing numbers should continue to push him up draft boards, but we shall see if measurables are enough for a guy that had 6.5 sacks last year.
Jermaine Gresham, TE, Oklahoma
I talked with Gresham last week, and he assured me that he was 100 percent healthy and ready to do all the testing after missing his senior year with a knee injury. Had he elected to come out early, he was thought to be a possible first-round pick in 2009. Gresham caught 25 touchdowns in the two previous seasons, and this combine could reignite the first-round conversations. He told me he would measure at 6-foot-4, 260 and should run around 4.7. You may want your tight end slightly faster, but he did average more than 14 yards a catch in college. Gresham will have to answer a few questions about an off-the-field issue, but after discussing the matter with him, I don't think it will affect him much.
Dexter McCluster, WR/RB, Mississippi
Interested in one of the most dangerous players in the draft and not worried about size? McCluster is your man. Some draft grading systems will prevent him from being a top 50 player simply because he checks in at 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds. But the college production, Senior Bowl practices and his combine testing should eliminate all fears. He is speed training with Olympian Michael Johnson and should really run and jump in Indianapolis. McCluster has to get his shoulder checked out from an old injury, which shouldn't be a problem. Some GM looking for the next Percy Harvin, Jeremy Maclin or DeSean Jackson is going to ignore the size and take this kid.
Tyson Alualu, DL, California
Some would say I am reaching for this guy when I only list 10 players. And sure, there are a number of other guys I can't wait to watch. But I just got done watching Alualu play three games on tape, and I just couldn't exclude him from this list. The guy can play anywhere on the defensive line because he's an athlete with a great motor. Alualu will excel in the running events at the combine and while he sits somewhere near the No. 7 defensive tackle on most boards, he should move up after this weekend. I saw the effort at Senior Bowl practices, and we will all see it again in the drills at the combine.